They are good examples of the growing realisation that computer games can have an educational use in the same way that real-world games can. But even more so, because the use of a computer relieves you of real-world problems like safety concerns, physical resources and lack of access to dragons.
Clever use of games can open up educational vistas that were previously attainable only by the very privileged. You can have an environment that is tailored to your learning abilities and style, you can have one-on-one attention, you can get instant feedback rather than sitting holding your hand up while the noisy kid at the front of the class dominates the discussion again.
Of course some of this is just about the use of computers, not gaming as such. The thing with using games is that it can also make the process of learning engaging and fun, as long as you are prepared to throw off the Victorian idea that education is work and should involve nothing but discipline. Whether you are directly using a game for education or using a game to provide a structure to other educational activities you can teach kids without it being a chore for them. And in doing so you’re not fighting reality.
How many times have you heard someone complain that all their child wants to do is look at a screen or play computer games? What is the benefit in fighting that if, instead, you can divert that focus into a legitimate educational outcome? Rather than fighting the child’s natural inclination to play with the bright, shiny, fun thing: just use that inclination for good.
Recently I’ve been playing Age of Empires with my kids and there are so many lessons that can be extracted from a game like that. Start with the different nations and their characteristics – why are the Dutch considered traders, what were Russian Cossacks? Then there’s the resource management – how do you balance the need to build farms with the need to build an army? There’s strategy and tactics – when do you work together, how do you protect your weaker players? There’s history in understanding the development of technology; there’s geography in reading a map and understanding the impact of terrain. The list goes on. All that’s required to make a fun experience into something also educational is a tiny bit of effort to provide some context – and doing so takes nothing away from the fun of playing. And this is with a game that wasn’t even designed to be educational.
Increasingly the educational games themselves are becoming more sophisticated. There are a raft of basic games that demonstrate everything from basic maths to spelling – so many, in fact, that it’s becoming hard to identify the good ones. But then there are the newer, far more sophisticated efforts. Code Hero is a gaming environment designed to teach programming. It creates a virtual world which you can travel through and manipulate as you learn to write code. The concept is more than clever; and it’s not hard to see how ideas like this could be used in a wide range of fields. This is less about technology these days and more about finding a willing market.
The trick with all this is first getting teachers to be aware of the possibilities – and that’s largely a generational issue. Then the main issue is creating a recognition that playing games does not have to be seen as wasting your time: As long as you make the effort to extract educational value, it is there to be had.
Image: Age of Empires, cpugamer